Important Ed Tech Book Reviews

Just in Time Technology


 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 10|No 5|February|2001

Avoiding dot compost
in education.

Skirting the Education dot Bomb

Winning value
for students and schools
in an increasingly
digital world.

by Jamie McKenzie
about the author

The collapse of many dot-coms in recent months points out the danger of laying aside good judgment. eSchool News offers two reports of educationally related failures in its February, 2001 issue. The headlines . . .

Schools zapped by ZapMe! Mull legal recourse
Wwwrrr’s online business folds

We are emerging from a period of frantic speculation. Many dot-coms have bombed. After several years of disdain for old time values such as profit, value and return on investment, many of the upstarts and renegades have depleted their cash reserves, folded their tents and hit the streets looking for work with the same companies they recently derided as "old economy" dinosaurs. Instead of early retirements with fat stock options converted into fortunes, many of the evangelists and prophets of the "new economy" have launched a search for pay checks and security.

There is a lesson here for educators. Many of the promises, projections and products being heralded by enterprising education dot-coms are truly exciting and worth a careful look. But others are ill conceived, violate essential educational philosophies and carry with them substantial risks.

Internet Hype and Bombast

Despite the claims, not all digital experiences are automatically beneficial or preferable to print experiences. One author and speaker popular on the technology circuit, makes the following statement in one of his books:

Time spent on the Net is not passive time, it's active time. It's reading time. It's investigation time. It's skill development and problem-solving time. It's time analyzing, evaluating. It's composing your thoughts time. It's writing time.
Growing Up Digital (Tapscott, 1999)

Those who work in schools and have watched students making use of the Net might quarrel with Tapscott's assertion, as many students will squander time on the Net doing many things not listed by Tapscott like chatting, downloading songs and playing Doom.

It turns out that the Net may prove valuable and worthwhile in particular cases, but value is not an inevitable by product of mere exposure. Schools and classrooms do not improve simply because Internet connected computers sit in corners or because students surf the Net. Students do not automatically analyze, evaluate and consider what they are browsing. They may snack. They may gorge. But thoughtful, discerning and deliberate use is not a given.

Digital learning is not automatically better than other kinds of learning.

Results depend upon the way activities are planned and structured. But mere exposure to the Net rarely works the miracles claimed by technology cheerleaders. To the contrary, we witness technology related disturbing new phenomena such as "the new plagiarism" and tendencies toward powerpointlessness, mentalsoftness and glib thinking. Along with the Net comes the disneyfication of much information and a focus on edutainment and infotainment.

Click here for an article on "the new plagiarism."
Click here for an article on powerpointlessness, mentalsoftness and glib thinking.
Click here for an article on the disneyfication of information.
Click here for an article on edutainment and infotainment.

Making Wise Investments

Before committing huge sums to new enterprises, schools need to consider the likelihood of winning a major return on the investment.

Those leading schools must protect them from powerpointlessness, edutainment and infotainment. The most promising strategy is to apply a filter to any newly proposed venture.

Before adopting an innovation, the planning group should ask the following questions:

1) What evidence exists indicating that this venture might enhance student performance on demanding new state tests and prepare them to show mastery of new curriculum standards?

2) If there is no reliable performance data available to assess the value of this venture, what aspects might contribute to producing the following outcomes?

  • Improved reading, writing and thinking
  • Collaborative problem solving
  • Persuasive communication
  • Enriched world view

3) To what extent is the new venture likely to win broad acceptance by the teaching staff as a valuable element to be blended into normal programming? Will it seem practical, relevant and user friendly or will it appear peripheral, frustrating and off task?

4) To what extent will the adoption of this innovation require a substantial shift in staff attitudes, skills and behavior such that major investments will be required in the form of professional development opportunities?

5) Could the learning activities and outcomes involved in this venture be accomplished just as well or better using books and other technologies? Is there a case of technology for technology's sake?

A Focus on Value

An emphasis upon student learning and information literacy is probably the best protection against education dot bombs.

When schools ask how they might best teach students to analyze, interpret and infer with these new tools, they dramatically increase the likelihood of realizing a real return on their investment dollars.

Online resources do not always provide the quality of good books and other print resources.

When we engage students as infotectives, expecting from them the same kind of thinking that Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew would employ to solve a mystery, we stand a good chance of improving performance on state tests.

  • Finding meaning
  • Creating meaning
  • Extending meaning
  • Reading between the lines
  • Working with clues
  • Building theories

In contrast, when we engage them in trivial pursuit or investigations that involve more entertainment than rigor and substance, we waste their time and risk inspiring the (warranted) resistance of staff members who already have too little time to address the demanding curriculum standards of this decade.

Beyond Books?

Readers of From Now On may recall that this journal continually calls for a blend of classical resources with new digital resources. See, for example, "When the Book, When the Net," (FNO, March, 2000.)

When a press release arrived recently announcing the offerings of a company calling itself Beyond Books (, it seemed like a good opportunity to put the concepts of this article to work.

Quoting from the company's Web pages, "Beyond Books offers educational programs paralleling established school curricula that are compelling, alive, interactive, and ready to use."

From Now On invites readers to apply the standards and filters mentioned above to the offerings advanced by Beyond Books.

Take a look at the sample pages from U.S. History at - "New Beginnings: Early British Attempts through Jamestown."

To what extent does the company offer a kind of learning that is substantially different or better than a textbook based program? Is there a focus on interpretation, analysis and inference? Is content organized around challenging, essential questions?

The claims are impressive (read below) but judge for yourself. Visit the Web site and assess the quality of the learning being offered.

Rate the Programs from zero stars to five stars one each of the following traits of effective learning:

zero stars This is not at all true of the product.
one star The product meets this trait rarely and with little regularity or quality.
two stars The product meets this trait from time to time with some quality.
three stars The product meets this trait often with some quality.
four stars The product meets this trait quite frequently with considerable quality.
five stars The product consistently meets this trait with the highest possible quality.

Traits of Effective Learning Products
. Challenging. Students are engaged in exploring essential questions requiring analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
. Standards-based. Activities are explicitly designed to develop the skills, understandings and knowledge required by state standards. The product offers direct links with standards.
. Motivating. The product is designed in a way that will capture students' interest by sparking their curiosity and emphasizing essential questions, themes and issues rather than relying upon glitzy entertainment strategies that emphasize an arcade approach to learning.
. Attractive and User-Friendly. The digital pages and activities are designed to appeal to young people and support efficient navigation without surrendering to pop culture values.
. Scholarly and Reliable. The information, the writing, and the learning activities are based on the work of professionals in the field of learning who have a deep and solid background in the material combined with an understanding of how young people learn, explore and build meanings. The company supplies background of product developers.
. Research-Based. The product is based on research findings, "best practices" and field tests of prototypes.
. Enhanced. The product offers students new experiences, opportunities and types of learning that would not be possible with older technologies. These opportunities are not only novel. They are also valuable as preparation for ways of living and working that will be essential aspects of the students' futures.
. Cost Effective. The product delivers opportunities at a reasonable cost - cost that stands in proportion to the value being delivered.
. Sustaining and Richly Varying. The product offers many choices, varies learning experiences and appeals to different learning styles so that it can maintain a high level of interest over time. The product will not suffer from an early fading due to :gadget effects." The product is organized so as to support and encourage the development of independent learning skills and attitudes.
. Assessable. The product provides a substantial battery of assessment tools and opportunities so that students may evaluate and then adjust the quality of their own learning.

Quoting from Beyond Books press release . . .

Beyond Books is an online educational tool providing engaging standards-based content to secondary school students. Through working with award-winning teachers we have developed programs that will engage students and allow them to take control over their own learning. Each program includes exciting content that is written in a way that students will enjoy while staying true to recommended and approved curricula. The content is current and features the material in a way that students can relate to.

Students will be engaged through our witty "teasers" which will entice them to dig deeper into subjects that spark their interest. This is a safe path to the best educational Internet sites available. But unlike other curriculum-related web sites we are not a web portal - we summarize and explain the "guts" of each site and present them in a way that will engage students. (Rather than simply listing hundreds of random links.) Our team of web researchers has reviewed every link to assure that the content is appropriate for specific age levels. We rate each site for interactivity and let the students and teachers know what the site is about before they go there.

Good teachers create learning journeys for students. They organize the journeys around essential questions and then make sure that students enjoy many rich opportunities to explore those questions.

Example: Which of the following captains would you select if you were preparing for an important voyage? Identify the key traits you would expect from a good captain and then compare and contrast all four choices.

  • Captain Cook
  • Captain Vancouver
  • Captain Shackelton
  • Captain Bligh

Powerful learning requires more than cool tools and a vast collection of stuff.

This kind of question leads to the following kind of questioning. A mind map (created with Inspiration™) suggests a path for the learning journey.

What evidence would help us to decide which of the four men was the then most capable navigator? We identify subsidiary questions for each criterion.

  • Did he know how to use all the best instruments of his time?
  • Did he keep a careful log?
  • Did he usually know where they were?
  • Did he ever get lost?
  • Did he seem to know what he was doing?
  • Did his ships have to wander around very much?
  • Did he stay clear of known hazards?
  • Did he know how to make the best of prevailing winds?
  • Did he know how to maneuver during a sea battle?
  • Did he have mates that could help him when he needed it?
  • Did he know when to ask for directions?

In all too many cases, new companies exploiting the potential of the Internet have failed to provide anything close to value-added. Some have put too much focus on the technology itself, as if being wired or digital was enough in itself.

Once the initial glow of surfing has faded, many parents, teachers and students are asking tough questions about value.

It is not enough to "do the Internet."

What matters is the quality of the learning opportunities and experiences.

Edu-dot-coms must learn to create digital products that actually improve upon past tools and programs.

Back to February Cover

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.
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